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Who Cares a Lot? Ruangrupa as Curatorship

Amidst the rapidly changing art landscape of Southeast Asia, David Teh sees the Indonesian collective ruangrupa as an intersection of subcultures and artistic currents that defies easy institutionalisation.

Last year Southeast Asia hosted two significant media art shows, both daring to juxtapose recent work from the region with seminal collections from the First World. In ‘Video, an Art, a History 1965—2010’, the Singapore Art Museum (SAM) tentatively aired its nascent Southeast Asian collection alongside a roving blockbuster from the Centre Pompidou in Paris. At the National Gallery of Indonesia (Galnas), the Jakarta artists’ collective ruangrupa held the fifth instalment of their video art biennial, OK Video, featuring a curated selection from the catalogue of Electronic Arts Intermix in New York. 01 Both exhibitions were rare treats, featuring contemporary video works from Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam, side by side with works by Western artists including Bill Viola, Dan Graham, VALIE EXPORT and Vito Acconci — the first time this canon had alighted on the region en masse. In both exhibitions worlds came together, but they were worlds apart.

I found myself wondering what it would be like if these two worlds were swapped, if SAM were to take over the ageing halls of Galnas, and ruangrupa the colonial nooks and crannies of SAM. For a start, we would see OK Video with fewer mosquitoes, and comfortable seats; with an injection of Singaporean efficiency, Galnas would get a much needed overhaul. SAM would meanwhile be unrecognisable, revived by a shot of the spontaneity and personality it lacks. Alas, it was wishful thinking. One can only dream of a day when the region’s resources are effectively shared.

It could be objected that I am not comparing apples with apples. SAM is a well-funded public museum, with its own collection, but, like all of Singapore’s institutions, it suffers from the overweening attentions of its bureaucratic parents. Galnas, meanwhile, is a criminally neglected child — a ‘national’ space for hire — and ruangrupa, while by now a de facto institution, is an autonomous artists’ collective, with no collection and largely free from bureaucracy. Yet the comparison was telling: SAM baulked at the task of integrating their works (either spatially or intellectually) with the visiting ones, leaving Southeast Asia a peripheral plug-in for the touring Euro-American canon. At OK Video, the foreign material was not the main event; carefully selected to feed and challenge Indonesia’s thriving video communities, it was circumscribed architecturally in its own pavilion, but nested within a locally curated smorgasbord. The contrast was a stark demonstration of the raw value of curatorial vision, a value not proportional to budgets.

Context certainly helps. In Singapore’s slick matrix of consumption, small curatorial fumbles will stick out like sore thumbs, while amidst the humming disorder of Jakarta — a city of some ten million souls, with a metropolitan population three times that — a little direction goes a long way. Yet the integration of local and international work was an important achievement, not least because the former draws upon, and critiques, the latter, but also because they are connected, whether consciously or unconsciously, through the history of the video medium itself, with shared formal parameters and shared referents in the world beyond the gallery. When it comes to exhibiting media art, it bears remembering that the museum itself is a medium, one to which a lot of media art is not native. The task of domesticating it is therefore fraught, especially in locations where institutions and curatorial practice are relatively young. So how is it that Jakarta, a chaotic mega-city with little infrastructure for contemporary art, has given rise to this sort of curatorial assuredness?

Site and Sound: Jakarta Calling (or, Karaoke as Method)

By far the most developed of Indonesia’s 922 inhabited islands, Java is about half the size of the UK, with roughly twice the population. It dominates the national economy, and in creative industries increasingly casts a shadow over its richer neighbours. Of its three artistic hubs, Bandung and Yogyakarta (Jogja) are the established centres of learning and production. Jakarta has long been the business hub, with the most commercial galleries. Given its strong non-commercial agenda, ruangrupa might seem out of place in Jakarta — an hour’s flight to the south- east, Jogja’s cheap rents and slower pace make it an obvious base for collectives. But ruangrupa is bound to Jakarta in every sense: physically, spiritually and conceptually, it is through and through a creature of the capital. This speaks volumes about the group’s significance and the unique path it has taken in Indonesia’s current contemporary art boom.

The collective was founded in 2000 by a group of young artists in a city then devoid of platforms for contemporary practice and collaboration. Their work- shops and exhibitions fast became magnets for artists, designers and researchers, eliciting broad-based community participation, distinguished by the group’s knack for critical exploration of their urban surroundings. This urbanism has been their most consistent refrain. Though they have consistently worked with artists from elsewhere, ruangrupa has made a profound commitment to Jakarta as both site and subject, to its people as both audience and authors. Since day one the group has taken the city itself — a noisy engine room of commerce and administration, not traditionally seen as a font of culture — as the primary protagonist of an epic adventure in collective storytelling. Heuristic as their approach may be, it is not without a certain realism, focused by an insistence upon the vitality of Jakarta’s contemporary culture, as rooted not in some timeless past, but in a dense demo- graphic and cultural stew of diverse and inextricable ingredients.

A pre-modern cosmopolitanism was forged here during the Srivijaya maritime empire that dominated the Malay world until the thirteenth century. Sunda Kelapa, as Jakarta was then known, had already long been a melting pot of regional and diasporic trading communities when the Dutch arrived in 1619. Renamed Batavia, the city was colonised and modernised, then nationalised as Jakarta. It is now being globalised, but this doesn’t mean homogenisation — rapid economic growth has come with an equally rapid dilation of the public sphere, and for a porous organisation, the city’s syncretic soil is fertile indeed. Such an environment puts a premium on openness, a trait ruangrupa exhibits inside and out. While the founders may worry that a new crop of decision- makers has been slow to emerge, a strong DIY ethos and a lack of hierarchy have been key to the group’s sustainability. Their suburban headquarters in the south of the city boast a well-used exhibition space, but it’s more like a clubhouse: always open, always peopled — a studio, a library, a research lab and a party venue, all in one. It would be lazy to call their collaborative house style ‘inclusive’. Ruangrupa is shareware, their partnering indiscriminate — witness the soup of logos on their sponsor rolls. They tap every level of the institutional food chain, with a reach only possible in the last decade or so: from foreign NGOs and municipal and national governments, down to the humblest grassroots initiatives — a big tobacco company here, a national media network there, a small business around the corner.

According to Bandung-based curator Agung Hujatnikajennong, Indonesian contemporary art has seen two distinct phases. The first reflected civil society’s atrophy under the authoritarian New Order (1965—98) of the country’s second president, Soeharto. The second, which is ongoing, reflects its flourishing and democratisation since the wave of popular disgust (reformasi) that finally unseated that regime amidst regional financial crisis in 1998.02In the earlier period, the social conscience that had long been a corner- stone of national aesthetics — modern art’s sine qua non since the independence struggle against the Dutch — found expression in a figurative modernism still loosely social realist in its scope. Its story remained that of nationhood, of the people (as, or against, nation), seasoned here and there with the ‘local’ or the ‘traditional’. Artists emerging since reformasi, however, are more playful and individualistic, enjoying the latitude of a liberalised public sphere, and the fruits of the country’s steady rise in the global neoliberal pecking order. But while exemplary of this new generation, ruangrupa strives to retain something of the representational logic of the old.

ruangrupa, documentation photograph of the flea markets in Barang Guru, Singapore during research for Singapore Fiction, 2011. Courtesy the artists

The result is a remarkably stable compound of activism and populism. The group’s early embrace of lo-fi copy cultures and digital and open publishing models dovetailed with a neo-Situationism that was de rigueur at the couch-surfing stratum of global art in the early 2000s. Since 2000, ruangrupa has published Karbon, a journal devoted to urban visual culture, which promotes criticism but also favours plain language. The biennial Jakarta 32°C, which they have organised since 2004, brings students’ work into the museum under the group’s curatorial umbrella, democratising the first steps to exhibition-making. Jakarta-based festivals like OK Video, meanwhile, become launch pads for nationwide tours and workshops, as did their tenth anniversary festivities in 2010, held under the project banner ‘Decompression #10’. And while in an earlier phase workshops were more hands-on and skills-based, as contemporary art production has flourished ruangrupa’s educational focus has sharpened around the critical faculties of writing and curatorship. The collective’s prodigious capacity for outreach makes for an unruly aesthetic, encompassing everything from punk and street cultures, through documentary and ethnographic research, to conceptual and process-oriented experiments. Binding it all together is a firm conviction that the participants are agents in a living social history, one that is fundamentally urban and modern.

To profile ruangrupa is to describe an event: time-based, immediate and loosely structured; with a sense of purpose, yet more celebratory than agonistic. If one had to choose a single medium to characterise it, that medium would be karaoke. Indonesians love to sing, and a rich musical patchwork is an ever-present accompaniment to daily life. The refrains of old folk songs segue into distinctive modern genres like the racy dangdut, a hybrid of Malay, Indo- Arabic and 1970s rock sounds. A vivid medley of subcultures jostles with local and global pop, especially in the streets, where chronic traffic jams create a captive audience for wandering ngamen (buskers). It is no accident that live music and a certain chaotic, mob-karaoke ritual have become trademarks of the ruangrupa experience. Indeed, this carnivalesque sonic profile betrays something of the group’s curatorial programme — it is prophetic in the sense Jacques Attali reserved forcomposition, presaging a new regime of cultural production that is live, open source and, above all, poly-vocal. 03

In his compelling account of Javanese modernity, anthropologist John Pemberton describes an extraordinary process whereby the island’s eighteenth-century aristocracy, whose role was rapidly becoming ceremonial, re-encoded the technologies and trappings of Dutch colonial might. 04 The once terrifying sound of cannon fire, for instance, came to announce official diplomatic correspondence, or to mark a royal birthday or wedding; a hybrid pageantry was improvised, retrofitted and elaborately codified. Pyrotechnics made for a spectacle of new order, distracting attention from the drastic defeat of the old. Pemberton also recalls how Soeharto, going through the motions of electoral democracy during the Cold War, took these vestiges of contest and refurbished them once again, as tradition, in the name of another ‘new order’. Ruangrupa, we might say, represents the opposite aural evolution. It is a stethoscope held to the rattling yet still growing chest of the metropolis, amplifying the hum of a popular sovereignty — long suppressed by colonialism and authoritarianism — over the ceaseless urban din.

Ruangrupa as Curatorship?

In a recent essay on ruangrupa, art historian Thomas Berghuis takes up some topical vocabularies for lassoing contemporary art’s vast diversity of ractices and newly integrated territories. 05 With nods to Nicolas Bourriaud’s relational aesthetics and Terry Smith’s reckoning with contemporaneity, he casts the group in the uncertain light of ‘the global’, as a laboratory for an art to come. In the clamour of the Jakarta art world, many would say a breath of speculative air is just what the doctor ordered. But what is missing from this picture is a sense of the intense struggle — in this region, quite peculiar to Indonesia — over creative and intellectual labour. In this struggle the curatorial faculty is crucial, not only because curators are pivotal in capturing talent, but also because curatorial functions have long preoccupied many of the most talented. Some of ruangrupa’s core members exemplify this bind, but they stand out for having maintained both their independence from the market and their standing with respect to the curatorial cartel that serves it. They are not the only collective to have thrived since reformasi — there are dozens — but their endurance and success, at home and abroad, prompts the question: has it perhaps been by appropriating the function of curatorship that this independence has been secured?

As a vocation, curatorship in Southeast Asia is tenuous. But in Indonesia, where a bullish market has the profession in its clutches, it is the craft that is tenuous, not the worker. One much sought-after Jogja painter makes enough from the sale of a single picture to buy a large house. Curators have not missed out on the bonanza. This newly struck professional mould, still setting, is guarded by a small band of entrenched taste-makers. In a country where an ample meal can be had street-side for a dollar, they are well rewarded — an anomaly in the region — especially a senior cohort whose number may be counted on one hand. But most of the throughput is handled by a younger generation who came of age during reformasi.

At worst, their job entails the perfunctory anointment of new product for the market. For some, the whole process may be done on a smart-phone: syncing calendars, browsing and selecting images, cutting and pasting together a recycled curatorial ‘essay’, before parachuting into town for the opening reception. It’s a well-oiled assembly line, by far the region’s most efficient. The conscientious few will manage some conversation with the artist, maybe even write something new, but a backlog of shows leaves little time for research; the typical project- window lasts weeks, not months. It’s a pity, for most were trained as artists and have a good grasp on matters of process; they speak persuasively of aesthetic currents, and artists’ places within them. But for all their mobility, their horizons as curators are limited by a parochial market, and a lack of credible institutional systems of validation and power.

If Asian modern art history has seldom ventured beyond national framings, this is not without reason. Rarely the product of organic urban fermentation, modern art has more often been a state-sanctioned project. But the unravelling of the Cold War has set the stage for a new mode of circulation and a new currency for the visual — a currency now called the contemporary. Gaining new patrons and markets, artists have filtered out certain modernist strains, and spun what’s left in the direction of international trends. But curatorship, by contrast — at least, curatorship as we now know it, unhinged from the collection that once grounded the role — has more or less had to invent itself from scratch. In the first proper regional study on the subject, Patrick Flores confirms that the role has always been the province of discursively inclined artists, and not defined around collections06. He identifies pioneers such as Apinan Poshyananda (a Thai) and Jim Supangkat (an Indonesian), who plugged Southeast Asian art into international circuits in the 1990s, as the key midwives of this contemporary. Not incidentally, both were trained as artists; no less significantly, neither has ever taught curating, nor trained worthy successors. Entangled by bureaucratic and market strictures respectively, they seem to have accrued powers too precious to be handed down. Today’s curators have inherited an invisible suit from these pathfinders, with little sense of professional continuity. And the corollary of this failure of professional memory is a failure to historicise exhibition-making per se. Ruangrupa and its collaborators stand out here for having kept alive a parallel world for historically informed — if not always art historically informed — ways of working.

Getting Modernity

I recently asked an Indonesian curator — trained and still practicing as an artist — what he thought of the curatorial studies programmes sprouting up around the world. If he were younger, where would he go to study this craft? His answer was revealing: ‘The Netherlands. And Japan.’ For an emerging leader from the global periphery, the prospect of acquiring curatorial expertise in emerging territories remains dim. And it is more than ironic that he should nominate both of his country’s former colonial masters, both wealthy nations with developed infra- structures for art, both steady fonts of the aid that has helped shape professional horizons in Indonesia. The pairing also serves to dramatise a certain historical polarity, perhaps collapsing now, between two very different demographic orders, as the vanguard cosmopolitanism of the Netherlands shrinks into something more akin to Japan’s insular nationalism. But my friend was answering, I suspected, with an eye on the past, not the future, which his explanation confirmed: ‘Because these two places really got modernity.’ The emphasis is his, and richly ambivalent — they ‘got it’ in the sense of understanding it, but perhaps also in the sense of copping it, of being on the receiving end of some painful but irrevocable gift. ‘Getting’ this most ‘contemporary’ métier would thus entail getting a certain modernity first. Clearly we were no longer talking about modern art, about this or that modernism, but about a lived modernity. The key knowledge for curating in Indonesia would be found where an antecedent modernity had taken root, whence Indonesia’s own modernity was grafted.

Upon reflection, this insistence on a source modernity also runs counter to the romantic nomadism that still pervades the curatorial discourse of a would-be ‘global’ field.07 Against the tide of this globalisation wades the stubborn figure of the modern nation — nation as product of modernity and modernity as the flagship product of nation — a structure that seems almost archaeological amidst the recent vogue for fallen utopias.08 But decaying though it may be, this concrete modernity in Indonesia’s cities is by no means the picturesque relic of a bygone international- ism. It is the everyday built environment, still being refurbished, still humming with life. Thus are Bandung’s colonial bungalows repurposed as factory outlets. The weary framework of Jakarta’s Taman Ismail Marzuki, a public facility for modern culture inaugurated in 1968, is the subject neither of fond portraits nor of ideological ghost stories — it still functions as a rare and valued piece of public infrastructure.09

This unfinished modernity has done nothing to limit ruangrupa’s contemporary currency. For the dematerialisation of art, too, is an incomplete project, and the ‘relational’ turn, far from transcending it, has only upped the ante. As the artwork becomes activity (participation, social engagement, conviviality) the market moves to outflank it, at once celebrating the ephemeral and unreified spirit of the work, whilst perfecting its titration into parallel currencies. As a collective exhibiting internationally, whose core activity is the production and dissemination of knowledge rather than things, ruangrupa is hardly immune. Indeed, the collective seems to exemplify that merger of artist and curator so often mooted in the ballooning discourse on exhibition-making. In a recent edition of Manifesta Journal devoted to this subject, positions are staked around Walter Benjamin’s 1934 lecture ‘The Author as Producer’. We can hardly doubt the enduring relevance of this text in the post-industrial world, where museum may be likened to factory, and the mere prospect of collectivisation, as John Roberts points out, no longer distinguishes artist from curator. 10 But these conditions are far from universal, and are by no means the manifest destiny of contemporary art in Asia. For Roberts, the curator unprepared to be an artist should step back into the wings and make way for those truly committed to thwarting art’s instrumentalisation. Such a synthesis has the whiff of an undead Hegelianism about it: the ‘artist-curator as producer’ must finally take responsibility for his own philosophy of production, as Arthur Danto might have put it. But if anything, Southeast Asian artist-curatorship ought to be read against the grain of this telos. Even for the region’s most conspicuous trailblazers (Apinan and Supangkat), the outcome was precisely the opposite: a renewed separation of roles.

However ruangrupa might seem to embody the disciplinary merger, then, in attributing to the group the form of a curatorship to come, with or without the italics, we run the risk of mistaking tactical moves for a strategic programme. And however appealing the image of their ‘contemporaneity’, the group should first be seen in another light, a light in which modernity and nation still matter, and instrumentality is not (yet) the arch-enemy of art; a light in which artists make artworks and curators curate, and it is possible to do both. Perhaps ruangrupa is more a spirit of curatorship — not limited to a single body, yet somehow tied to a place — that would defend the autonomy of artists, singular or plural, but not necessarily that of the artwork. For this spirit the audience, rather than the work of art, may be the ultimate object of curatorial care.


  • ‘Video, an Art, a History 1965—2010’, co-curated by Christine van Assche and Patricia Levasseur de la Motte, Singapore Art Museum, 10 June—18 September 2011; and OK Video FLESH: 5th Jakarta International Video Festival, curated by Hafiz, Agung Hujatnikajennong, Farah Wardani, Mahardhika Yudha and Rizki Lazuardi, National Gallery of Indonesia, 6—17 October 2011.
  • Agung Hujatnikajennong, ‘Everything Melts onto the Screen: Video and Media Art in Indonesia’, presentation at ‘Video Vortex #7’, Kedai Kebun Forum, Yogyakarta, July 2011. See also his ‘The State and the Market: Two Decades of Indonesian Contemporary Art’, in Biennale Jogja XI — Equator #1(exh. cat.), Yogyakarta: Yayasan Biennale Yogyakarta, 2011, pp.180—89.
  • See Jacques Attali, Noise: The Political Economy of Music (trans. Brian Massumi), Minneapolis: university of Minnesota Press, 1985.
  • See John Pemberton, On the Subject of ‘Java’, Ithaca, NY: Cornell university Press, 1994.
  • Thomas J. Berghuis, ‘ruangrupa’, Third Text, vol.25, issue 4, 2011, pp.395—407.
  • Patrick D. Flores, Past Peripheral: Curation in Southeast Asia, Singapore: NUS Museum, 2008.
  • I would not be the first to observe that this nomadism is often a smoke screen for the industrial and economic transmigration it quite faithfully maps. See Pascal Gielen, ‘Curating with Love, or a Plea for Inflexibility’, Manifesta Journal, issue 10, 2010, pp.14—15.
  • See, for example, Guy Tillim’s Avenue Patrice Lumumba (2007—08), or Cyprien Gaillard’s Desniansky Raion (2007). Louidgi Beltrame’s film Brasilia/Chandigarh (2008) even made it to Singapore with the Pompidou show. The appeal of this genre is apparently universal, although it might be interesting to compare the respective geographies of production and consumption.
  • The cultural centre was built on the site of a public park established by Raden Saleh, Indonesia’s first modern artist, during the Dutch East Indies era. In using this space for exhibitions and concerts, ruangrupa continues a tradition of diverting art’s resources towards the provision of public space. Patrick Flores deals specifically with the matter of incomplete modernities in ‘The Curatorial Turn in Southeast Asia and the Afterlife of the Modern’ (2008), in Melissa Chiu and Benjamin Genocchio (ed.), Contemporary Art in Asia: A Critical Reader, Cambridge, MA and London: The MIT Press, 2011, pp.197—210.
  • John Roberts, ‘The Curator as Producer: Aesthetic Reason, Nonaesthetic Reason, and Infinite Ideation’, Manifesta Journal, issue 10, 2010, pp.51—57. See also Hito Steyerl, ‘Is a Museum a Factory?’, e-flux Journal [online journal], issue 7, 2009, (last accessed on 23 April 2012).